MTV mixes it up and gains support; The music channel is careful not to back itself into a niche, which is why you can see a teen pop video right after an alt-rock one.; POP MUSIC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What do the Backstreet Boys, Lauryn Hill, Korn, Ricky Martin and Will Smith have in common?

At first glance, not much. There's no common thread, musically, between the Backstreet Boys' clean-scrubbed, heavily choreographed teen pop and Korn's crunchy, attitudinal hard rock. Nor does Hill's sophisticated, socially aware R&B; bear much resemblance to Smith's brash-and-catchy hip-hop, or to the slick, razzle-dazzle sound of Martin's hits.

Yet all five are contenders for the Best Video of the Year award at MTV's Video Music Awards show on Thursday. And the fact that MTV's ballot for the best in music video would draw from such a wide range of music says much about the music channel's strengths.

At a time when radio is clinging desperately to musical formats that seem to grow narrower with each passing week, MTV is mixing it up with little regard to stylistic boundaries. At the moment, the music channel's play list has room for the soulful pop of Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker," the boogie-guitar-driven rap of Kid Rock's "Cowboy," the Latin pop of Enrique Iglesias' "Bailmos," and the funky alt-rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Scar Tissue" -- and that's just in the Top 10.

It doesn't matter if an act is as famous as Santana, or as unknown as Bif Naked -- if MTV's programmers think their audience might be interested, the band gets played. And the amazing thing about taking such chances with the music is that it works, a point driven home daily by the jumble of pop styles presented on "Total Request Live," a show in which MTV's viewers decide what songs get shown.

"I tell you, some people shake their heads and go, 'Man, I don't get this,' " says Tom Calderone, MTV's senior vice president for music and talent programming. Indeed, there are older viewers and music-business types who are baffled by the way a show like "Total Request Live" can leap from the hard and nasty Limp Bizkit to the sweet teen pop of Christina Aguilera without missing a beat.

But the kids at home understand.

"I think, for the state of music right now, [the show] has exposed so many genres of music," says Calderone. As a result, he adds, viewers "don't feel that everything is put into nice little tightly wrapped boxes. And that is such a plus for us now, that on 'Total Request Live' you can have Kid Rock, the Backstreet Boys, Korn and Jay-Z all on the same show. And it's all being requested by people who love music. "I'm just so excited by the musical climate for the channel right now. And it really isn't represented in any other media, other than here, and that gives us a certain advantage."

Audience enthusiastic

Especially in the ratings. Right now, MTV is reaching more viewers than at any time in its 18-year history. For the last two quarters, the channel has been No 1 on cable with viewers between the ages of 12 and 34, and is holding that lead through the third quarter -- a demographic advantage that puts MTV well ahead of such cable outlets as USA, TNT and CNN.

The depth of that audience's enthusiasm can be seen on a daily basis in Manhattan's Times Square, where dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of young people congregate outside MTV's offices at 1515 Broadway in hopes of being caught on camera during MTV's broadcast of "Total Request Live." Their cheering enthusiasm for MTV (and, especially, for "TRL" host Carson Daley) makes the crowds milling about outside NBC's street-level "Today Show" studio seem, well, almost stodgy in comparison.

Getting that kind of on-the-streets craziness was the whole idea, says MTV president Judy McGrath. "We pretty much decided to make 'TRL' as lively and live as we could," she says. "Go after the audience who really loves the current music and will call [to make requests]."

Changing the look and feel of "Total Request Live" was part of a channel-wide makeover aimed at sharpening and enlivening MTV's programming. "We really tried to change the channel up, play to the audience that was available ... and really sell the music," says McGrath. In essence, MTV wanted to put the focus on its two greatest assets: Music, and music fans.

But rather than program the channel based on assumptions about what "the kids" wanted, MTV went to its audience directly, encouraging them to call "Total Request Live," featuring them heavily in shows like dance-oriented "Global Groove" or the annual "Spring Break" specials, and doing audience-level programming like "Fanatic," in which fans get to interview the stars.

MTV also moved away from its old approach of relegating music videos to late night and mid-day broadcast. Not only is music programming at the core of the channel's prime-time programming now, but the non-musical shows -- such as the teen-alienation cartoon "Daria," or the outlandish, prank-humor comedy of "The Tom Green Show -- come across as an extension of the MTV aesthetic.

The MTV identity

As Calderone puts it, fare like "Daria" and "The Tom Green Show" succeeds because it has "the MTV look, and the vibe of the channel. You never want to lessen the expectations of our core audience. They know that when they watch a show, it has that MTV attitude and MTV style. And also it's risk-taking."

For MTV, risk is good -- especially when celebrities are involved. That's why shows like the Video Music Awards (which airs live on Thursday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m.) are ratings bonanzas for the channel. "For the VMAs, there's got to be a sense of danger," says Calderone. "There's got to be a sense of 'What are they going to do?' We challenge ourselves internally to make sure we come up with those moments, so people talk about the show not only the next day, but for weeks on end."

But MTV's current boom isn't just a matter of a few hot shows -- it has to do with a whole youth aesthetic. That doesn't hold a lot of attraction for many older rock fans. Rocker John Mellencamp, who was an MTV staple through the '80s and early '90s, says the channel is more meaningful to his 12-year-old daughter. "MTV fancies itself as hip and youthful," he says. "I don't think you'll see anybody on there who has been making records for 25 years."

Well, actually, Santana is in current rotation -- although it probably doesn't hurt that his current video features a cameo from Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas.

Besides, as McGrath points out, the fact that MTV's audience is young doesn't mean that their tastes are limited. "Some of the shows we've done have gone into viewers' closets and collections, and you absolutely see a Led Zeppelin record next to Christina Aguilera," she says. "That is how people live and listen."

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